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The plain error rule applies only in truly exceptional cases. Before deciding that an error by the trial court amounts to "plain error," the court must be convinced that absent the error the jury probably would have reached a different verdict. In other words, the court must determine that the error in question "tilted the scales" and caused the jury to reach its verdict convicting the defendant. Therefore, the test for "plain error" places a much heavier burden upon the defendant than that imposed by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1443 upon defendants who have preserved their rights by timely objection. This is so in part at least because the defendant could have prevented any error by making a timely objection. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1443(c).
Defendant was charged with first-degree murder and contended that he acted in self-defense when he shot and killed a business partner. The Criminal Session of Superior Court, Rutherford County (North Carolina) convicted defendant of first-degree murder. On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court committed reversible error in allowing the prosecutor to cross-examine him concerning a prior instance of assaultive conduct and by admitting a hearsay statement by the decedent recorded in his hospital file. Defendant also maintained that it was "plain error" not to have instructed the jury that, with regard to his theory of self-defense, he had a right to stand his ground and had no duty to retreat.
Could defendant’s conviction for first-degree murder stand, notwithstanding the alleged errors of the trial court?
The Court held that it was error for the trial court to allow, over defendant's objection, the prosecutor's cross-examination of defendant regarding alleged extrinsic acts of misconduct in order to circumstantially prove defendant's character for violence. However, the error was harmless in light of other evidence. According to the Court, the defendant waived any error in the admission of hearsay evidence by permitting other similar or same evidence to come in without objection. The Court further held that it was error for the trial court not to have instructed on defendant's right to stand his ground but the error was not preserved for review under N.C. R. App. P. 10(b)(2); further, it was not "plain error" because the outcome was not changed. Accordingly, the Court affirmed defendant’s conviction.